Musings + Essays

The Swan of Tuonela.

By: Jen Shoop

*I published two posts simultaneously this morning — ICYMI, I also wrote a small business gift guide.

8:14 a.m., Saturday morning, 1992. My sisters and I were a riot of bare feet and rumpled nightgowns, Barbie dolls and unbrushed hair. We clambered up the steps of the basement in response to my mother’s call to breakfast — because it was a Saturday, there were stacks of Bisquick pancakes swimming in Aunt Jemima syrup. At the landing, you could take a left to trot past the butler’s pantry into my mother’s recently-remodeled kitchen. But to the right, you’d meet a long corridor lined with floor-to-ceiling mirrors that ran nearly the length of my childhood home and ended in my father’s study, whose double doors were nearly always ajar, and from which a constant stream of classical music unfurled at a high decibel no matter the hour of the day. Sometimes, my father would be stretching in there prior to one of his long Saturday morning runs, as he was a marathoner at the time. Most of the time, he’d be sitting behind his broad, leather-topped desk with newspapers, folders, legal pads, and his prized Mont Blanc pen neatly in front of him, or at the small carrel in which our family computer sat — often the site of protracted negotiation with my brother over who got to play the heavily pixelated Jordan Vs. Bird computer game first. This particular Saturday, I poked my head into his office and found him leaning back in his chair, his hands crossed on his chest, his eyes closed. The music — often loud, this time nearly deafening — swelled around us. He pulled me into his arms and we listened to all eight minutes of Jean Sibelius’ “Swan of Tuonela” together. I was young and partly confused by what I was supposed to be doing. My father had taken me when I was maybe six to the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center, and I remember puzzling over what I was supposed to be doing then, too — the lights had dimmed to signal the start of something, a hush had fallen over the crowd punctuated by a few awkward and lonely coughs, and then…? I had just sat there, staring at the small box of Junior Mints in my hands and my patent leather shoes sticking straight off the edge of the folding red velvet seat in front of me, casting occasional sidelong glances at my father for instruction. Is this all the orchestra is? Sitting in a row of chairs, staring at nothing, listening? It felt horrifically boring given all the fanfare of dressing up, going out in my father’s gold sedan after I was meant to be in bed, and being presented with the opportunity to pick whichever candy I wanted from the small concession stand in the Kennedy Central hallway, but I could tell by the relaxation of my father’s face, his far-off look, his evident contentedness in just sitting there, that I was meant to appreciate it with the kind of reverence I normally associated with Sunday Mass, which was equally boring to me at the time, though also more unnerving given its high stakes. The look my mother would give me for misbehaving in the pew — shoving my sister, crumpling a paper, giggling — was enough to knock the wind right out of me, and there was of course the vague threat of being scolded by the priest or, as was a distinct possibility to my six-year-old self, being reprimanded by God Himself. (“This is God’s house,” my mother would say, and I couldn’t disabuse myself of the image of Him in an armchair in the sacristy.) The hierarchy of discipline was clear in Church. At the Orchestra, I was quiet because there was simply nothing else to do. No sister to fight with, no mother to whom I might whine about my itchy sweater or my too-tight hair braid.

Listening to Sibelius in my father’s study drew similar lines of quandary, though the experience was considerably more interesting. For one thing, I treasured moments like this, alone with my father, removed from the cloying calls for attention my sisters always brought with them. For another, I found myself straining to understand the music in a way I hadn’t at the Kennedy Center. It seemed to tell a story. If you listen to the piece, you’ll understand why. “The Swan of Tuonela” is a tondichtung, or a piece of music that illustrates the narrative of another art form (a poem, a painting, a novel, etc.). In this case, Sibelius interprets one of the folk stories from the Finnish mythological epic Kalevala, in which the hero Lemminkäinen is sent on a quest to kill a magical swan that floats around the island of Tuonela, the “underworld” of Finnish mythology. Sibelius’ tone poem is full of drama, with intense crescendoes and the cor anglais striking a pronounced plaintive note against the alternate softness and trill of the string section. It is possible to argue that all music tells a story, but the conjuring of specific imagery in Sibelius’ masterpiece is unmistakable: you cannot miss the sudden appearance and mournful elegance of a singular swan floating across a moonlit lake, in imminent danger. I know my father must have heavily annotated the piece for me (“did you hear the swan?”), but, listening back — as I have on countless occasions since — the swan is manifest, as ineluctable as the fate of Lemminkäinen himself in Kalevala.

I have learned much from my father, but sitting in his arms listening to “The Swan of Tuonela” has proven to be a touchstone in my personal education. The serious, private enjoyment he took in sitting alone, eyes closed, with music at full tilt has served as tacit and lifelong permission to lean heavily into art and its interpretation in my own life. There was nothing mushy or whimsical about my father, a serious attorney of vast intellect, straining to make out the shape of the swan and imagining Lemminkäinen emerging from the thicket on the shore of Tuonela on his fool’s errand. There was gravity to his active participation, near-reverence for not only the art but the act of engaging in it. The nave of the Church, the tiers of seating in the Kennedy Center hall — I see now the easy comparison forged in my green imagination. Both bore godly things, but it was home, in the cosset of a book-lined study, where it all came alive.

I am a rule follower by nature. And so I think often of how lucky I am to have had a father who took me in his arms and told me, in so many words — as a matter of fact, without any (!) — that is, by pure force of his gesture — that it is good and right and urgent to care about the story and the idiosyncrasies of its telling, to belabor the details, to sit in receptive divination. In part because of this benediction, I find myself story-telling for a living.

But here is where my knees buckle: do you also gape at the many layers of narrative, interpretation, and re-interpretation in this Saturday morning vignette and my accounting of it here, nearly 30 years later? At the fact that I observed my father and spun my own explication of him sitting in open-minded awe at a recorded performance by a philharmonic orchestra of a musical piece that was itself an exposition of a Finnish myth borne of oral folk tradition? At the way that a story can exist as a quiet bond between a father and a daughter and also a direct lineage back to my family’s Finnish roots? And the way that same story (the Kalevala) served as a significant expression of national identity back when Finland was embroiled in Suomen kielitaistelu, a protracted, class-inflected conflict over the status of the Swedish and Finnish languages in politics and culture in the 19th century?

In other words, do you also marvel at the way in which stories can hold us together, in both the narrowest and broadest of senses?

That doleful swan carries the meaning of multitudes.


+More on my father and rules and more on my father and his creative habits.

+More musings on my heritage.

+On siblinghood.

+On the improbable good fortune of having my parents.

+On growing up in D.C.

+On losing loved ones and having children.

+On being a rule follower.

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